The Ford Focus ST is your typical blue oval performance car in Europe, contrasting with the big powerful Falcon sedans such as the XR6 Turbo and FPV GT.
But Ford’s latest-generation ST – for Sports Technologies – is now being pitched as the company’s first true global performance model – one it says will have the same dynamic qualities and appeal whether drivers are in Los Angeles, London, Rome, Sydney or Melbourne.
As sales of large cars continue to plummet and small cars continue to dominate local sales, Ford hot-hatches like the Ford Focus ST (and Fiesta ST due next year) could take on more prominence here.
This Focus and one Falcon variant do have at least one thing in common. The 2.0-litre four-cylinder direct fuel injection turbo under the bonnet of the Ford Focus ST is closely related to the one used in the Ford Falcon EcoBoost. (The turbocharger, pistons, engine calibration, compression ratio and intake and exhaust designs are different.)
For the third ST, which was previously known here in first-generation guise as the ST170 and then as the XR5 Turbo, that means a reduction in capacity of half a litre, from 2.5 litres, and a drop of one cylinder.
As is almost the case every time these days with such downsized engines, there are mostly upsides.
Power heads closer towards the 200kW mark at 184kW, torque beefs up to 340Nm, and importantly fuel efficiency and emissions are lowered by about 20 per cent to 7.4L/100km and 172g/km respectively.
The XR5 Turbo was a relative bargain at $35,990, yet while the Focus ST price jumps six per cent to $38,290 this still undercuts rivals such as the $40,490 Volkswagen Golf GTI, $42,640 (three-door only) Renault Megane RS265 and the $39,990 Subaru WRX.
Equipment hasn’t been tossed overboard to get there, either. The Ford Focus ST includes satellite navigation, hands-free voice command control, Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming, keyless entry and engine start, dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing wipers, nine-speaker Sony audio and rear view camera. And unlike the XR5 and RS, this time there’s cruise control.
Then there are the not-found-in-any-other-Focus-models touches – inside and out – such as the twin central exhaust pipes, unique-design 18-inch alloy wheels, Recaro seats front and rear, sports steering wheel and array of ST-badged items, including aforementioned wheel, front door scuff plates, floormats and gearlever.
The bodywork bulks up, too, the suspension sits 10mm lower, and a cleaner-looking – and arguably less aggressive-looking – front end is headlined by a single-piece, black honeycomb grille.
Our test car came in the ST’s exclusive orange paintjob Ford calls Tangerine Scream and what we call a fitting colour for this hotter Focus.
For anyone who’s driven the XR5 Turbo, or the Focus RS, the immediate concern may well be the departure of their brilliant 2.5-litre five-cylinder Volvo engine.
Well, fear not. Yes, the four-cylinder doesn’t have the enjoyably warbly character of the five-pot but it does bring its own fine soundtrack – again piped from the engine bay, through the firewall, and into the rear of the dashboard through the so-called Sound Symposer.
It’s a meaty, sporty note that sounds completely natural and gets better as revs rise.
With 340Nm of torque sitting on a plateau between 2000 and 4500rpm, the driver also has the choice of palming the leather gearknob into a higher gear earlier and enjoying the tremendous mid-range kick and easy flexibility that was a highlight of the old five-cylinder.
Sixth gear will cope with just 1000rpm on the tacho, pulling (if only gradually) from 40km/h.
Acceleration is suitably exhilarating both from a standing start and in-gear, though torque steer isn’t eradicated despite the presence of Ford’s electric power steering that features a Torque Steer Compensator.
The ST features neither a mechanical limited-slip differential of the rival RS Megane nor the clever Revoknuckle front suspension of the Focus RS that somehow minimised torque steer in a car that put 224kW through the front wheels.
Torque steer in the Focus ST is most evident in aggressive straight-line acceleration (which results in 0-100km/h in 6.5 seconds, according to Ford of Europe), and even then it’s more of a noticeable tugging effect rather than an event that will throw you off the road.
Ford says it deliberately left some torque steer in because it reckons it adds drama and provides important information to the driver. We don’t think enthusiasts will have an issue with it; those buyers simply after a sporty-looking Focus without necessarily wanting to explore its limits may find it less endearing.
It’s less pronounced in corners, though, with just enough to tell you you’re trying to put plenty of power to the ground through the wheels also steering the car but it never upsets your line or the balance of the car.
And balance the Focus ST has. Ford’s hottest small car currently available in showrooms doesn’t fail to build on the fundamentally fine chassis of the regular Focus.
Body control is superb, and tauter than a Golf GTI’s, with the ST resisting lean through corners and savouring quick direction changes.
The 18-inch rubber – unlike the same-size tyres on higher-spec Focuses such as the Titaniums – provides a nice balance between power and grip, with the front end sliding through corners and responsive to throttle pedal movements.
There’s a three-stage electronic stability control system that includes a ‘fully off’ mode, but even when fully engaged the ESP threshold is generously high.
Steering that is precise, hefty and quick, plus brakes that are progressive and full of bite, seal the deal.
And while the steering is a touch springy around the straight-ahead, and not immediately responsive, that also works in its favour on straighter roads such as freeways where it contributes to the ST’s constant feeling of stability.
The suspension is also expertly judged for general ride quality. It’s firm, of course, but the damping is quick without being aggressive and the Ford Focus ST brushes off potholes let alone brings harshness.
The brilliant Recaro bucket seats also deliver a sense of security, with thick bolstering providing a stronghold on the driver and front passenger without squeezing comfort (confirmed by three hours we spent driving up a freeway).
The yellow/black leather and cloth upholstery of our test car looked properly sporty, too, adding important hot-hatch flair to the cabin that could otherwise be close to being accused of being too close to the interior of a regular Focus.
The front Recaros are quite chunky, though they’re aggressively scalloped at the rear to make sure there’s some semblance of knee room in the back, where passengers also sit on comfortable Recaro-made cushions (in bench form) made from special foam.
Throw in the presence of rear doors, split-fold rear seats and a well sized boot and the Ford Focus ST also meets that other important criterion of hot-hatches: practicality.
There are the odd blemishes in addition to the torque steer, such as the poor turning circle, tyre noise that can get vocal on coarse surfaces, and headlights that aren’t true ‘auto’ headlights as they won’t switch off automatically if you have main beam selected (yes, we’re being picky).
Other than that, the new Ford Focus ST makes the perfect bridge between the old XR5 Turbo and the now-discontinued wild child Focus RS. The rich lineage of small fast Fords continues.
Ford Focus ST
Price: $38,290 (plus on-road costs) Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo Transmission: 6-speed manual Power: 184kW at 5500rpm Torque: 340Nm at 2000-4500rpm (360Nm with Overboost) 0-100km/h: 6.5 seconds (claimed) Fuel economy: 7.4L/100km (9.6L/100km on test) CO2 emissions: 172g/km
Click on the Photos tab up top for the full Ford Focus ST gallery, including other body colours.